The Player’s Guide to Being an Awesome First Hire, Part 1: Getting to know your founders

Listen up, player. This series isn’t going to be about anything prior to taking the job. I won’t be talking about negotiating the right terms, whether being the first employee is right for you, or any of the other discussions on the topic.

I can tell you after spending the last year as the first employee at Storefront, it can be an amazing experience. Taking a role like this can be the perfect training ground for becoming a founder yourself one day. This means learning lessons at much lower risk than actually being a founder and considerably less stress. If you’re given the opportunity with agreeable terms, this series of posts will indeed tell you want you need to know to be successful and will give you an idea of the benefits that come with the role.

Getting to know your founders

Getting to know your founders is the first thing you should do when you join a startup.  Ideally, it starts during the interview process. Not just for the first hire but also for many after that. In a small and fast paced office, managing upwards is a key skill. To drive that point home further, managing relationships of any teammate is key. Hierarchies are blurry when a startup is small, and responsibilities bleed into the territories of other employees.

Back to your founders. Here’s a checklist of some things that you should know:

  1. What drives them to succeed? Prior to taking the job you should have a feel for their hopes, desires, and even their dreams. Their core motivations will tell you how they’ll handle tough situations, company culture, hiring other teammates, and potential liquidity events (should you be so lucky). If you don’t know why they started the/a company, what their end goal is for the company, and what motivates them, find out soon. The best way to get that info and the best venue IMHO, over drinks. Make it a couple drinks.
  2. What are their hot buttons positive or negative? Everyone has a way of doing things, a theme, a philosophy of sorts. Make sure to check-in on your progress. What should you be doing differently? Look for any themes in the way they evaluate the success of projects or employees. You’ll find they emphasize the same elements over and over. If you’re being observant and catching on to the hot buttons, you’re ahead of the game.
  3. Why did they hire you and what do they believe you add to the team? Related to the most important question you should ask yourself every day, what value do I bring to the team? The company will change and so will its needs. If you don’t adapt your skill sets & abilities to those changes, you’re inviting a tough conversation with your founders. (AKA you’ll get shit-canned) Start with why they hired you. If you were solving a specific problem, is that still important to the company?I wrote recently about a great exercise from Reid Hoffman’s book. This is another great way to figure out if what you bring to the table is still aligned with the company’s mission. Remember market realities are always at play. If you’re not the right fit for the mission or the team, a change will happen eventually. Either make it work or make your way to the door.

And that’s my advice, player.